The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, has issued fresh remarks about the day the IRGC shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane over Tehran with two missiles that reveal important details about the timeline.
In the disaster that occurred on January 8 this year, every one of the plane’s 176 passengers and crew members were killed. Even as Iranian officials were waiting for a possible missile strike by the United States, in retaliation for missiles fired at the Ain al-Asad air base Iraq a few hours before, Iranian airspace was still open to civilian and commercial flights.
At the time, Hajizadeh said on television that Iran’s integrated defense system had not answered the IRGC's defense query and as such, the operator had taken the decision to shoot down the plane. Three days after having denied firing at the plane at all, Islamic Republic officials accepted full responsibility for destroying it with IRGC missiles. But they still refuse to hand over the two black box flight recorders recovered from the wreckage, and have released no details of the potential prosecution of the individual responsible.
Iran’s reluctance to close the country's airspace and not notify civilian airlines, both of which are the international duties of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has already led to speculation about Iran’s use of air passengers as human shields against a potential US attack.
Four months after the incident, General Hajizadeh’s new remarks on the tragedy have given further credence to this theory. Speaking on April 23 on the occasion of the launch of the IRGC's military satellite into space, Hajizadeh said that after the killing of Ghasem Soleimani, then-head of the IRGC's Quds Force, "…the Americans had an unfounded assurance that Iran would not respond. But following the slogans of revenge chanted by the Iranian people, they felt somewhat threatened.
“For this reason, they announced that if Iran took any action they would strike 52 targets. They thought Iran should hold back and do nothing. The United States said it would attack various cultural sites in Iran. They intended to hit the Supreme Leader's residence, but with the strong will of the Supreme Leader and on his decision, an operation was carried out immediately and the program at the Imam Khomeini Hussainiya [an annual speech to commemorate the Qom uprising on January 9, 1979] was broadcast live for the first time. This move sent a message and disrupted their plans."
The IRGC's missile strikes on an uninhabited part of the US air base in Iraq had taken place at around 1am on Wednesday, January 8. Hajizadeh claims that Iran was expecting a reciprocal operation and a missile strike by the United States, and yet Iranian civilian airspace remained open. The IRGC shot down the Ukrainian airliner over Tehran shortly after 6am.
Ayatollah Khamenei's speech was broadcast live from the the Imam Khomeini Hussainiya, which is part of the Office of the Supreme Leader in Iran: Khamenei's official residence. It began at 10am, nine hours after the missiles were fired at the US base. Hajizadeh said Iran knew the US “intended to hit the Supreme Leader's residence". But nevertheless, large crowds of Qom residents – described as “thousands” strong on Khamenei’s website – physically attended to watch the speech.
The commander of the Aerospace Force concluded that the live broadcast "sent a message” to the US and “disrupted their plans." In effect, this means US was sent a “message” on television that a vast throng of civilians would be stood in the vicinity of Khamenei – and if the Leader’s residence was targeted, a large number of civilians would also be killed.
The Fourth Geneva Convention for the Protection of Rights of Civilians strongly prohibits the use of human shields against military strikes. According to the Convention, which the Iranian government has ratified and is committed to implementing, "The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations". In this scenario, the protected persons would be the Iranian civilian population: both passengers on the Ukrainian plane, and Khamenei’s "thousands of people of Qom”.
The Israeli government has repeatedly criticized the Islamic Republic for using Palestinians as human shields in the Gaza war. Now, according to information released by the IRGC’s own military officials, the Islamic Republic has been deploying its own population as a deterrent to US military threats.
No attacks have been carried out by the US on the residence of the Supreme Leader or indeed elsewhere. Hajizadeh's remarks have strongly reinforced previous hypotheses that the reason Iran did not close its airspace on January 8 was to create a human shield against any possible attack. In time, they may serve as important evidence in lawsuits brought by the families of plane crash victims.